“Perfectionism doesn't make you feel perfect. It makes you feel inadequate.” ~Maria Shriver
Like many of us, I spent a big part of growing up feeling like I wasn’t enough. I was quite a studious kid, and this coupled with being terrible at sports and also quite chubby meant I was a bit of a target. Indeed, when your first and last names both rhyme with “fat” it’s pretty easy for bullies with even limited wordsmith skills to come up with insults.
And it’s easy to say what words can’t hurt and that it says more about them than it did me. Yet, what it did mean for a long time was that I felt a lack of acceptance from my peers. And this does hurt. I don’t for a second think I’m alone with this either.
No matter who you are there’s times growing up when you want nothing more than acceptance.
Because here’s the thing: This need for acceptance, it’s a natural human tendency.
As we grow we try to fit into the world as best we can. We yearn to be grounded in who we are, so we fall into the trap of defining ourselves by what others say about us. As a result, over time, we become conditioned to believe that the world outside us is somehow responsible for our happiness and well-being. We look at our jobs, our partners, what we believe other people think of us—and we decide that we are lacking.
This was certainly true for me for a good number of years until I became a teenager, when I lost weight and started to feel stronger and happier about myself. Finally those feelings of not being enough were gone. Or so I thought.
Because what I realize now is that they too had grown up. And what was once naïve insecurity had twisted and mutated into an adult need for perfection and control. As I’ve come to terms with this recently it’s opened up a whole range of emotions and new insights for me.
It’s dawned on me how much I’ve been hiding and pretending these past few years, and I’m ready now to move past that.
This was highlighted recently for me when I found a poem I wrote when I was younger titled: If I was David Bowie I wouldn’t have had my teeth done.
And I really meant it too. Because the thing is, I’ve always liked things a little edgy, a little earthy and real. I grew up listening to Nirvana and Guns n Roses and The Stones. I spent my twenties obsessed with the Beats and Bukowski. So, the idea of being overly polished and shiny-teethed wasn’t something that ever really appealed to me.
Yet, next month I finish off a two-year course of Invisalign, which has made my teeth all straight and nice, and ends in a treatment to make them all white too!
You see, something changed a few years ago and it’s only now that I’m really seeing it fully. Somewhere along my journey I reverted back to acting from fear rather than love. I stopped enjoying my imperfections and had begun striving for an outward ideal of perfection.
What I thought was me having it all figured out was actually just me getting a whole lot better at tricking myself.
You see, despite having lots of interests and passions in my life—and being pretty motivated and focused for most of the time—there always came a point when I stopped enjoying what I was doing. The lightness and joy of creativity got overtaken by struggle and perfectionism.
As I went forward with a vision, I began comparing myself to others; looking for acceptance externally, to the point where I ended up second-guessing myself and eventually giving in and moving on.
This is something I’ve only recently realized. The pattern seems to go that whenever I’m operating from fear I revert to hiding behind a shield of faux-perfection. I feel I’m not enough, so I act out, trying to go the other way—to counter the feelings; to try and kid myself, as much as the world, that I’m flawless.
And I think this is where a lot of us can struggle. We feel we have to be more than who we are.
We want to fit in. So we bend to what we think others want us to be like. But I see now that trying to seek acceptance from outside of myself is a path to nowhere good.
I believe now that this is one of the main issues that can hold us all back if we aren’t aware of it. Comparing ourselves to other people makes us fearful of being who we really are. But when we aren’t us, who are we? Who are we looking for when we try and be anything other than who we really are?
When we put this barrier of desired perfection between us and the world, it stops deep connections being formed.
It stops us from being as authentic and open and grounded as we could be. Yet when we accept ourselves whole-heartedly, with all our foibles and vulnerabilities, we give ourselves and others permission to grow and create without limitations.
Because we’re not here to try for perfection. Doing so it implies there is a goal to reach, an ideal to master. But what if we knew that who we are is already perfect? What if we were all able to step back and see that striving for acceptance is only taking us further away from ourselves?
In this surrender we are allowed the freedom to connect to a deeper, more pure perfection that is always there.
It is beyond the intellect, the personality, and the mind. It's an inner sense of knowing, which only comes once you've realized that who you really are exists before all your thoughts, beliefs, stories, and insecurities.
And that person is always completely perfect.
Because I know I’m intelligent, I know I’m empathetic, caring, a good listener, and I have really great imagination. I’m fantastic at lighting fires under others, helping them see how special they are and how things that might seem impossible are actually really achievable.
But… I’m also clumsy, self-conscious, introverted, sarcastic, messy, and grumpy sometimes. I can procrastinate for days, I skip meditating some mornings to watch the cookery channel, I can be argumentative and downright silly when I want to be. I read a lot of pretty deep books but I watch quite a lot of lowbrow TV too, and I really enjoy it. But that’s okay. I don’t have to be a constructed ideal of ‘perfect.’ None of us do.
Because the thing is, when we compare ourselves to others and seek external validation we exist in a perpetual state of need.
But once you see yourself from an infinite perspective and don't need to win people's acceptance, you can be kinder and gentler toward yourself.
There is only ever going to be one you. Ever. There is only one you that has ever existed in this entire universe. Right now you are absolutely perfect at being you. No one can think like you, create like you, love like you.
That thing you do that you keep hidden? That’s perfectly you. That weird sneeze that you do that makes you feel a little silly? Embrace that like crazy. That’s perfectly you. No one does that but you.
When you seek acceptance, when you try for perfection, when you aim for external validation, all you’re really doing is playing it safe. You’re fitting into someone else’s ideal. Or worse and more likely, you’re fitting into a societal average of what perfection is, watered down, anodyne, overly safe.
So what would it take for you to throw off the need for acceptance and perfection and just be you—playful, silly, messy, lovable, perfect?
Don’t you owe it to yourself to eschew external validation and only look for your validation within?
Your experience of life is always created inside of you. Yet because of the way our minds work we often make ‘things’ out of our thoughts. Suddenly something someone said to us becomes a real ‘thing’ we feel we have to deal with and obsess over. But it was only ever a thing because you made it a thing. And just like that you can let it go too.
You have ultimate power over what you create in the world.
But the caveat is you can only wield this power if you are living in the real world. In a place where you have impact and where you can take action. Spending too long looking for made up perfection outside of yourself will stop you from being all you can be.
I also know that just because I’ve had this insight doesn’t mean I’m any more sorted either. I’ll still get caught up in the outside-in misunderstanding on a regular basis. Just like we all will. I’ll still get envious and impatient and blame external things for my ‘lack.’ I’ll still seek acceptance from others.
Yet I also know I’ll be able drop out of this habitual, insecure thinking a whole lot quicker and connect back with my innate creativity and resilience. I hope reading this will help you do the same.
Because it’s all part of the game, all part of the dance. And I don’t regret any of it, least of all getting my teeth done. In fact, I love them. What I once described as a “row of wonky tic tacs” now looks pretty good.
But really what I like about them most is I feel like I’m smiling a lot more now. And maybe it’s the teeth, but maybe also its because I’m enjoying myself again, maybe it’s because I feel I am allowing ‘me’ to show and I’m becoming more connected to who I really am, imperfections and all.
So stop trying for perfection and relax in the knowledge that when you stop trying you’ll quickly connect back to who you really are. Someone who is already perfect at being you. And that will never change.